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Gunpowder, Cannons, and Horses, Oh My! The 149th Anniversary of the Battle of Perryville

The Battle of Perryville Reenactment in Perryville, Kentucky Civil War

When the first battles of the Civil War broke out in April of 1861, ladies and their gentlemen brought picnic lunches and sociability to the edges of the battlefield. However, as the casualties mounted on both sides, the spectators quickly realized the war was no Sunday afternoon frivolity. Luckily for us, the 149th Anniversary of the Battle of Perryville was, and yes, you can bring a picnic lunch.

No soldiers, horses, or spectators were harmed in the staging of this re-enactment.

Just a little history:

The Battle of Perryville, fought October 8, 1862, was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, and the largest battle fought on Kentucky soil. Lasting approximately 6 hours, more than 1,400 men were killed, more than 5,500 wounded, and almost 1,200 men captured or missing. Kentucky played host to several other skirmishes thanks to its border-state status, including the Battle of Mill Springs, the Battles at Forts Donelson and Henry, General John Hunt Morgan’s infamous raids, the Battle of Munfordville, and the Battle of Paducah. As a border-state, Kentucky was a key to the strategies of the Union and the Confederacy. Lincoln was quoted:

“I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

“I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. … We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of the capital.”

The state’s position along the Ohio and Mississippi River made the successful occupation of Kentucky by either army, a tactical advantage, and in 1862, the Confederates launched their Kentucky Campaign, pushing North from Tennessee.

The Battle:

from the PerryvilleBattlefield.org Schedule of Events:

Around 1:30 in the afternoon of October 8, 1862, members of the 33rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Leonard Harris’ Brigade, deployed skirmishers to the left of General McCook’s Union line, which was deploying on the fields. Soldiers from Company A and F were sent out some three hundred yards in front of the 33rd OVI to reconnoiter the area for any sign of the Rebel Army.  They soon found elements of Wharton’s 8th Texas Confederate Cavalry which were conducting a sweep around the main Confederate force’s right flank.

Wharton’s 800-man Cavalry force swept down on the skirmishers of the 33rd Ohio Infantry and drove the skirmish line back. Wharton’s men, who were also known as Terry’s Texas Rangers, withdrew from the area unaware of the full strength of the Federal Army.

The rolling terrain of the “Chaplin Hills” created “line of sight” problems for both armies. Wharton grossly misjudged the strength of the Union deployments and when Maney’s Confederate Brigade moved into position from the fields, they found a much stronger Federal position than was anticipated.

Maney’s veteran Confederates eventually pushed the Federal line back and with the help of Wharton’s Cavalry overran the Federal guns of Parsons’ Union Battery, which were positioned on the hill.

Maney’s men continued to advance through the cornfield which extended into the trees on the left. They crossed the Dixville Road and pushed further to the Union position on the far hill. A desperate hand-to-hand fight ensued and the Confederate advance stalled. Darkness soon followed and the Battle of Perryville ended.

Although the Confederates were victorious, the outnumbered southerners were forced to withdraw, giving up the field and eventually the state to the Union.  The massive Confederate offensive, which occurred during the summer and fall of 1862, was turned back.

With Confederate defeats in Maryland and Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln gained the military clout he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the war went on for 3 more years, Confederate forces were never again able to mount an offensive equal to their 1862 campaigns.

Going to the Re-enactment

If  you’re not a fan of loud, percussive noises, walking, or the milling about of large family groups, going to the re-enactment is not for you. If, however, you enjoy action, interaction, and history, you’re going to love it! This years re-enactment featured about 75 re-enactors from the 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry reenacting company, based out of Cincinnati, OH. We chatted with one of the Union men, and he told us they participate in approximately 2 re-enactments/month during the summer (high-season for re-enactments) and visit plenty more.

Cost

Going to the re-enactment will cost you $10/per car, more for passenger vans and buses. There are a few add-ons at the State Historic Site as well, such as a Guided Battlefield Tour ($5/person) and the Ghosts of Perryville Tour ($10/person led by SHOCK, the Spirit Hunters of Central Kentucky). Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the ghost tour this time around, though I doubt my nerves could have handled it.

Traffic & Parking

The programming information for the re-enactment warned us to beware traffic congestion and troubles parking, but we didn’t have any troubles at all. Perhaps it was the virtue of a Sunday afternoon, or that it wasn’t quite the sesquicentennial (more on that in a bit) but we made it to Perryville quickly and easily, and the uniformed gentlemen guided us straight to parking.

A Few More Notes

  • The battlefield is BIG. And not only is the battlefield big, but the entirety of the Perryville State Historic Site is big. The soldiers at the actual Battle of Perryville had trouble navigating the terrain, and you will too if you don’t wear good walking shoes. Heck, you might have trouble if you don’t wear good walking shoes, we had a bit of trouble walking sideways across the hills, and up the hills, and down the hills. But it really does make you appreciate just how easily an entire army might sneak up on you from atop a ridge.
  • We had a BEAUTIFUL day to go watch the re-enactment, warm in the sunshine, cool and breezy in the shade. But, as we all know, Kentucky weather is notoriously fickle and the battle will go off sun, rain, or snow. The reenactors this year had to spend the night in below 40-degree temperatures in their Civil War Camps and the Battle itself was fought during one of the worst droughts in Kentucky history, so be prepared.
  • On that note, you may also want to bring a chair. Some of the folks had picnic blankets and stadium chairs, and a great vantage point to watch from. Bear in mind however, you will be dragging that chair with you everywhere you roam across the park.
  • If you’re easily startled by loud noises, here’s your warning: there are guns and cannons, and they make loud, startling noises. When the cannon went off the first time, there wasn’t a single person in the crowd who didn’t yelp or jump. And when the cannon kept going off, people continued to be startled by it, along with their pets.
  • Which brings me to another note: yes, you can bring your friendly dog, but there are lots of horses and children running around, and loud noises like I said, so it might be wise to bring your dog only if he/she has a zen-like demeanor and wonderful social skills.

Re-en-inter-acting

(yeah, I made up a word, so what?)

The best part about going to a Civil War Battle re-enactment is interacting with the reenactors- say that 5 times fast. We chatted with a few fellas from the Union company, one of whom was clearly brave, because he let Blair aim his rifle! The reenactors WANT you to come talk to them and ask lots of questions and they really know their stuff. They can tell you all about how the soldiers lived, trained, and fought; what their families were doing back home; and plenty of other great history and culture tidbits from the 1860s. You can check out the camps they set up (and yes, live in during the reenactments) and shop for re-creations of artifacts from the time period. I’m actually still upset we didn’t wear our hoop-skirts for the occasion…

The Sesquicentennial

No, I did not just make up another word, honest- go check out Webster‘s! If you didn’t know it already, we are in the midst of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, aka the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War. Fort Sumter has already commemorated the event along with many other Civil War battle sites and history sites. Perryville will be honoring its sesquicentennial next year, and they let us know it will be a BIG EVENT. Re-enacting companies will be coming in from all over the country to lend a hand to the authenticity of the battle, and over 6,000 soldiers are expected! The dates are already set for next year’s festivities, and you can bet that traffic and parking may not be as easy to come by for next year’s event. However, if you do go, you will most definitely be treated to a unique and exciting experience, that though it may come from a dark period in our history, will surely put a smile on your face.

Wait! There’s More!

Check out these photos of our trip from My Old Kentucky Road Trip’s guest photographer, Elliott Hess:

http://www.elliotthess.com/perryville/soundslider.swf?size=1&format=xml&embed_width=700&embed_height=600

We have more photos from the Battle of Perryville re-enactment over on our Flickr Photostream or you can visit www.perryvillebattlefield.org for more information.

Top photo by Elliott Hess Photography for My Old Kentucky Road Trip, www.elliotthess.com

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